A veteran of ballroom dancing competitions and TV shows, Virshilas has found her calling: to break down gender stereotypes with her BallroomBees concept that makes dance more accessible and inclusive for kids in Hong Kong and beyond
Katya Virshilas grew up dancing, as did her husband Klaus Kongsdal, a former World Champion. So once they settled in Hong Kong in early 2017, it was only a matter of time before they started seeking out dance classes for their sons Alexander and Marcus, now 6 and 4.
When she took Alexander for a dance class in a prominent local studio, Virshilas recalls being taken aback by how dance was presented. “Everything was centred for girls and pink—filled with tutus and butterflies,” she says. “The moms told me I was in the wrong place after I asked them for props for my boys. It’s completely 1950s! Girls should play more sports and boys should do more dance and arts.”
This conviction ultimately inspired Virshilas to start her own programme, BallroomBees, which takes a more accessible and inclusive approach. Kids learn agility, gross motor skills, self-respect, and how to interact with their peers as partners while following high-energy exercises and games rooted in the core principles of ballroom dancing.
Below Virshilas reflects on her professional dance days, her ambitions to expand BallroomBees across Asia, and how she is changing the concept of masculinity one parent at a time.
How did you get started in ballroom dancing and what were the benefits for you?
I took my first dance class in Lithuania and then we quickly moved to Israel where I danced in my aunt’s school (she was a ballerina). It wasn't until I was 13 that I took my first ballroom and Latin class after seeing the Ohio Star Ball dance competition on TV in Vancouver. I was mesmerised and told my mom that's what I wanted to do. I hated my first class, though. My mom actually had to bribe me 50 dollars to come back. The teacher said I was too old to start and that I would never have a career in dance. I decided to prove him wrong.
Benefits in the beginning were, of course, to keep me busy and out of trouble as a teenager. My mom picked me up from school and drove me to training and then I would do homework in the car on my way home. I realised the immense hard work one must put in—it's not all glitz and glamour.
What are your proudest achievements from your professional ballroom dancing days?
I was the youngest British Columbian champion at 16 years old in Vancouver. I competed for many years, winning prestigious competitions around Canada and the world as well as placing in the top 20 at the World Championships.
While training in my studio in Vancouver, I walked in to see Jennifer Lopez being trained for her upcoming move Shall We Dance with Richard Gere. I knew the teacher who was training her and he said, “there is a small perfect role for you to play as Stanley Tucci’s dance partner.” I read for the part right on the spot and a month later, while I was in Blackpool for the British Open, I found out that I got the role. One of my biggest roles was opposite Antonio Banderas in the movie Take The Lead. I played Morgan and danced a very feisty tango with Zorro.
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Boys somehow grow up thinking dancing is for girls and it is weak. How sad is that? Usually, of course, this comes from parents, in particular dads
Ballroom dance plays into traditional gender roles. Did you encounter issues with misogyny or women being unsupportive of each other?
The traditional rule was that the man leads, but really what it means is that he moves slightly earlier than the lady. In high level dancing, lead and follow is never discussed; it's simply called partnering. Ballroom dancing encourages a man and a woman together on all levels: physical, emotional, even spiritual. Dance couples competing on a high level take complete care of every aspect of their careers, which means scheduling, financial planning, contracting, and artistic development. So essentially the dance style encourages a man and woman to connect and cooperate.
Women traditionally have been bad about being unsupportive towards each other. I have had a very close-knit circle of female friends and we have been friends since we were 13; they have kept me grounded and taught me about true sisterhood. Being in Hong Kong in the last four years, I have felt an enormous support from other women.
Do you see any changes in the industry?
The entertainment industry has changed a lot; there is a lot more room for women and being different is now more important than ever. I speak Russian and Hebrew, and my accent was such a problem when I first started acting; they didn't want to hear other languages and nationalities. I did a lot of dialect training to perfect an American accent. Now, and especially in Hong Kong, everyone is from everywhere and I don't have to wear a suit and glasses to be taken seriously as a business woman in meetings.
How can dance be empowering for boys as well as girls?
Empowering boys in dance is the reason why I started BallroomBees. I wanted to create a safe and creative place and programme where boys feel comfortable to dance and express themselves. Boys somehow grow up thinking dancing is for girls and it is weak. How sad is that? Usually, of course, this comes from parents, in particular dads who basically think dancing is for the weak. I love changing these types of dads' minds and usually all of them secretly want to learn to dance themselves.
Dancing teaches boys how to be around the opposite sex, to be respectful, and to learn lifelong skills that they can use. That’s not even saying that I have personally trained top football and cricket players and showed them how dance can help their speed and agility.
What has it been like making the career change from professional dancer to entrepreneur and teacher?
I finally found my calling at 35 years old, but it took my whole life to get to where I am now because I got to combine all my favourite things and years of experience and training. As a dancer, you follow a lot; then as a creator and producer as well as choreographer you get to know the behind the scenes more and appreciate what it takes to put a project together from zero to on its feet. I have never had a regular 9-to-5 job (well, I did spend a few years working as a server during my acting years between film and TV projects). Having the best teachers is what makes BallroomBees successful. I will never forget what it's like being a student and that's what makes a great teacher. You should also never stop learning and listening.
Did becoming a mother have much of an impact on your career or your priorities?
I will forever be grateful for my boys inspiring me to finally find my passion in life, and it is because of them I was able to create BallroomBees. I realise that in a few years my sons will be older and realise their parents don't have the typical Hong Kong jobs (we are not in finance). Their father is a former world champion and trains some of the best dancers in the world at the Olympic level. He is an international judge as well as an event organiser of one of the biggest competitions in the US. I don't want them to be bullied in school. I hope in a few years BallroomBees will be in more and more international schools across Hong Kong and their friends would be able to say, “ah, man, that's so cool, I just learned the waltz in PE and I'm loving salsa”. My priorities are family but our students are also like family to me, so it's all about balancing my time.
How do you navigate work-life balance? What’s your philosophy?
I recently worked with Janick Glud Lowe who is a neuro-linguistic programming coach and founder of SISAC (“success is a choice”). He taught me something extremely valuable and that is to respect my time and schedule my life better. Once my calendar for the month is booked and full, that's it. I stop adding more and more things. I divide things into two categories: networking and meetings to further my business and company and spending time with the people I love the most who fill my cup and bring me joy. Things that are mediocre and have no positive effect in my life I don't have time for. This truly helped me find so much free time in my life.
Your husband is also from the dance world and involved with Ballroom Bees. Is there any competition, or how do you manage and support each other?
I always get asked that! When I was on Strictly Come Dancing in the UK, the media would ask if he gets jealous of me. But if they could only see who he works and teaches on a daily basis ... the most fittest and stunning people on the planet.
I think my husband and I have some fundamental differences. He is a purist, and I am show business. But our differences and similarities are what bring the magic to BallroomBees. He is a shareholder and a director and guides our curriculum as well as training our teachers. He always makes sure my feet are firmly on the ground.
Have you had any notable mentors or role models?
My role models have always been my friends, especially my female friends; I have friendships that span 25 years. I love the story of Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, and I am a big MasterClass fan.
What advice would you have for your younger self?
No means not today, so try again tomorrow and the next day. Start wearing sunscreen now, don't wait until you are 30. And don't worry, you will meet the man of your dreams who will treat you like a queen.
What are your goals for Ballroom Bees and how do you hope to make an impact in Hong Kong?
I have huge plans for BallroomBees. We are building an empire, as I say to my boys every day. To me, BallroomBees is a way forward for schools and kindergartens to break down the stereotypes. Extracurricular activities in schools should not be divided into what girls like and what boys like. We need to bring them together and teach our next generation something different.
To be able to do a waltz with your mom, or to salsa dance with your girlfriend or future wife or just build confidence walking into a room with your head held high for a presentation or that important interview for your dream job is a fundamental skill that children should possess when leaving school.
BallroomBees is a concept that makes ballroom dancing accessible for everyone to try and do. Ballroom dancing is a very elite and expensive sport like golf and tennis, and we strive to make it accessible to everyone. We have 15 centres in Hong Kong and are growing. We have expanded BallroomBees into our first franchise in Brunei, which launched in February 2022. We will be bringing BallroomBees to Singapore and across Asia and, in three to four years, we will be in the US as well.
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